First Step Act advanced prison reform, but hundreds are still serving unjust sentences

First Step Act advanced prison reform, but hundreds are still serving unjust sentences

As advocates representing poor people convicted of federal crimes, the overwhelming majority of whom are Black and Brown men, we have seen the ease with which harsh mandatory minimum sentences have become part of our criminal system.

For example, in 2008 at a federal courthouse in Fort Wayne, Indiana, our client Dion Walker received a mandatory life sentence for selling cocaine to a government informant. Because Walker had two prior convictions for nonviolent drug offenses, the judge had no choice but to sentence him to life in prison.

Highly controversial, this “three strikes” law represents the darkest excesses of our “tough on crime” approach to federal drug offenses.

Nonetheless, we have also seen modest progress toward reform. In 2018, Congress passed the First Step Act, which modified drug laws such that if Walker were sentenced today, his mandatory minimum would be 15 years, rather than life.

As reforms often are, however, the First Step Act was imperfect: Congress did not make its changes retroactive, meaning Walker continues to languish in prison for a sentence Congress overwhelmingly recognized as unjustifiably long.

Second chance for prisoners serving unjust, outdated sentences

On Nov. 1, another promising reform takes effect, providing hope that Walker and hundreds of others serving unjust and outdated sentences might receive a second chance at life outside of prison walls. Under new guidance from the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the agency responsible for setting federal sentencing policy, individuals like Walker can now ask judges to reduce their “unusually long sentences.”

The underlying legal basis is a law passed by Congress in 1984 – informally known as “compassionate release” – that permits judges to reduce a sentence when an individual can show an “extraordinary and compelling” reason for doing so.

The Sentencing Commission’s commonsense expansion of compassionate release makes us hopeful that our federal criminal system can carve out a little space for redemption, mercy and a recognition that we don’t always get it right the first time around.

You can read the full article at USA Today.